Of course if I knew how to write a smash-bang romantic comedy then I’d probably have done it by now. Truth is that I know what I know about screenwriting and making really interesting stories, and based on part one of this series, I’m not happy with how romantic comedies are being written. With the feedback I’ve received so far, it appears that many of you share my feelings.
What I do know is that there is a tried-and-true formula for writing romantic comedies, and the most successful films do high-concept spins off that formula, and the most banal ones follow it to the letter. We see it everywhere, especially in things like haute comfort food. It’s not just a grilled cheese, it’s got cornichons and hand-smoked bacon and fois gras butter. Tastes great, costs a small fortune, but in the end it’s still a fucking grilled cheese sandwich.
I’m tired of that. I want something different. I want us to discover new ways of having people find their true loves, of having them, and struggling to keep them. There’s the bible of romantic comedies - Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit - which is uniformly excellent and worth reading, regardless if you want to write an romantic comedy or not. The book breaks the genre down into a single, seven-step formula and goes to great lengths to show that pretty much every romantic comedy followed said formula. Mernit’s formula is as follows:
1) The Chemical Equation, i.e. the players in the game and what’s missing in his / her life.
2) The Meet Cute, i.e. the crossroads where the two lives intersect for the first time.
3) The Sexy Complication, i.e. the central conflict that keeps the characters from fulfilling the gaps laid out in Step One. This can be both internal and external factors.
4) The Hook, i.e. the big event that throws these two together and it becomes the point of no return.
5) The Swivel, i.e. a reveal that puts one or both characters’ goals in jeopardy.
6) The Dark Moment, i.e. the consequence of the big reveal, which exposes an inner truth / realization of what actually is missing or what they’re doing right or wrong.
7) The Joyful Defeat, i.e. the acknowledgement that the other half is the key, and the willing sacrifice of something to make it all happen.
Mernit goes into great detail of each but this is a bastardized version in a nutshell, and I can’t really argue with it. Where we often see failures in the genre is when our expectations are never really challenged, and on top of that the formula is laden with really dull, mean characters. So let’s rock the boat and fuck with both tenets.
I’ve gone into great lengths some time ago about writing interesting characters, and it’s worth your while to go back and revisit those posts:
Once we have those interesting characters, insert them into Mernit’s formula and see what happens. You should have an interesting story at it’s most basic, fundamental level, but what happens when you start to rearrange and reinterpret the stages. What happens if the ‘meet cute’ happens at the very end of the movie? What if it never happens at all? The latter would be a very bold step, i.e. a romantic comedy where the leads never once meet. At least physically. Think of a movie like Spike Jonez’ Her, where technically the lovers never meet. They interact but there’s no physical connection (despite a painfully awkward attempt which is one of the truly great scenes I’ve witnessed). What if the final sacrifice involves saying goodbye forever, a la Roman Holiday? It’s been done before but what makes it so memorable is the lead-up to that moment. A couple that is so perfect for each other and yet the forces of the universe keep it from happening. The ultimate sacrifice is their love itself, which is a very powerful thing. it plays into the notion that there is no such thing as an everlasting love, because the truth is that death will tear us apart at some point. But there is an elemental love, one that exists in ether, one that death cannot touch. It’s a love that is incredibly difficult to fit into the romcom formula, but I feel if we can do that, we will redefine the genre and bring it back to its glory.
Play with the formula by first writing your story to the formula. Then go back and write the exact opposite of the formula’s demands, one section at a time, and see what happens. Defy expectation, take the path less traveled. Most of the time it won’t make sense but if your characters are true, interesting and compelling, they will take you to very interesting places. Trust your characters, and observe how they would react. One of the most important things to remember is something I call the Mamet Rule, which is David Mamet’s central questions regarding characters:
What does the character want? What happens when they don’t get it?
Deny your characters at all phases. See what happens. Give them a little back. See what happens. Take it away. See what happens. The most unconventional of reactions is where the root of your comedy and drama lays.
I keep thinking of the character Duckie from John Hughes’ screenplay for Pretty in Pink. He is memorable to me because he is constantly denied what he wants. He reacts with both spoken and physical comedy, and his journey is quite tragic. He journey strikes a chord in my heart, as the plight of the fool, which universally is something every romantic has in his / her heart. Putting your love out there is an act of borderline humiliation, but we do it anyway because love is irrational. Duckie is a real character and we get to see what happens when he is denied what he wants. It defies the formula because theoretically it is the story of Andie Walsh and Blane McDonough, but in my view it is Duckie’s story, which kind of blows my mind.
We cannot break rules unless we know the rules in the first place. More importantly we have to accept that while there is the notion of classic, romantic love (which is what the formula gives us), modern love has evolved into something very different. Just think - had there been cell phones and email, most of the problems of romantic comedies would be solved. There’s no need to run to the airport. Feelings can be conveyed in an instant. Flash mobs can be posted on YouTube. Courtship has changed, and no matter our desire for things to be the way they were, the reality is that while romance is still about getting lost in love, we have a GPS in our phones to get out of it. Let’s work with the modern notion of love and courtship and craft authentic stories, with authentic characters, that let us connect to our condition. I think a film like Her accomplishes this with tremendous success, as the desire in a technology-ridden world is the desire for actual, physical contact. That desire is tempered by the protective shield that technology gives us, it feeds into our survival instincts of not wanting to get hurt. Play with these notions, put your characters in them and see how they react. You’ll be telling the tale of modern love.